I didn’t see him at first. I had got into the train at London and sat down in a seat which faced the sunshine so, semi-blinded, I did not realise there was someone sitting opposite me. But when the train drew out, there he was, a man in a dark suit, reading a hardback book of very serious aspect. Are you like me? I always long to know what other people are reading on trains. I will twist and crane my neck to get a good look at the spine. If necessary, I will wait till the reader goes to the toilet or the buffet, then quickly pick up their book and have a good look at it. Once, and once only, I started reading the book, and was still reading it when they came back. Most embarrassing.
In this case, it was very easy to read the name of the book. He was reading The National Trust Handbook. It seemed an odd choice of leisure reading. In fact, as soon as I got a chance, I said so. I can’t remember now what the pretext was for two English people who had never been introduced to talk to each other, but when we did get talking I said it was a most unusual way to relax, reading lists of ancient properties.
‘Oh, it’s work,’ he said. ‘I work for the National Trust.’
‘What do you do there?’ I said.
‘I look after the supernatural,’ he said.
‘Pardon?’ I said. ‘I thought for a moment you said you looked after the supernatural.’
‘People always look surprised when I tell them,’ he said. ‘But you have to remember that the National Trust owns and looks after a lot of very ancient buildings, and some of them are haunted, and someone has to be in charge of that kind of thing. You wouldn’t be surprised if I said I was in charge of weathervanes, or stabling. But ghosts are just as much a feature of old houses as weathervanes and stables. So someone has to look after it.’
‘What happens if a house isn’t haunted? Or doesn’t seem to be? Do you have to check them all out?’
‘Checking a house for ghosts is not a science, you know,’ he said. ‘We have to depend on tradition and old stories and eye witness accounts. The odd thing is that some houses are totally free of any supernatural presence at all, while others have more than their fair share of ghosts. I know of one house in Yorkshire where at least five different ghosts have been sighted. It would be rather nice if you could share these ghosts out, and give one or two to a house to that hasn’t got any, but that isn’t the way that ghosts work.’
‘So how DO ghosts work?’
‘Have you ever seen a ghost?’ he said.
‘Most people haven’t,’ he said. ‘At least, they think they haven’t. I once spotted a gardener at a hall in Dorset wearing the most peculiar old-fashioned clothes, with leggings, and watched him for a while sharpening a scythe with a whetstone. Turned out later there hadn’t been a regular gardener there for years. Last one had committed suicide. Cut his throat with a scythe. So maybe I saw his ghost . . .’
As the man droned on, I found it hard to concentrate on his words in the hot sun, and actually closed my eyes and dozed off. I don’t know how long I was asleep for, but when I woke up he had gone, and so had his National Trust handbook, which suggested that he had got off while I was asleep. One wouldn’t take a book to the buffet or toilet, after all . . .
‘Tickets, please,’ said the ticket collector. I showed him mine.
‘Anyone else sitting at this table?’ he said.
‘There was someone,’ I said, ‘but I think he got off at the last station.’
‘What last station?’ said the ticket collector.
‘Well, I don’t know,’ I said, ‘but wherever we last stopped.’
‘We haven’t stopped anywhere yet,’ he said. ‘We haven’t stopped since London.’
‘That means he must be on the train somewhere,’ I said. ‘But that’s odd . . .
‘Maybe you were seeing things,’ said the ticket collector.
‘Seeing things? But people don’t see things on trains!’
‘You’d be surprised,’ said the ticket collector. ‘I’ve seen things. Things that weren’t there. And people. In this very carriage, actually. At this table. I sometimes wonder if this coach isn’t haunted . . .’
He moved on to the next coach. I was alone at my table now, but there was a friendly-looking woman at the table across the way, with a small dog in a basket, and when I got talking to her, I asked her if she had heard what the ticket collector had said.
‘What ticket collector?’ she said.
‘The one who came through ten minutes ago.’
‘I didn’t see any ticket collector,’ she said. ‘Are you sure? I’m sure there wasn’t one. I should know. I’ve been keeping my eye open for him, because I don’t know if the dog has to have a ticket or not. So I would have seen him if there had been.’
I opened my mouth and was about to describe him when I suddenly realised that there had been something odd about him. He was wearing a uniform I hadn’t seen on a train for years. It was almost as if . . . I remembered what the National Trust man had said about the old gardener. I felt a sudden surge of horror and fear. I suddenly hated this train. And just then, as if answering my prayers, the train drew to a halt at a station, and I impulsively got to my feet and jumped out. I can always get the next train, I thought.
The first thing I noticed about the station was that it seemed disused. There was grass growing between some of the paving stones, and the benches were very dirty. Only one of them was occupied, by a young man holding some notebooks, pens and a camera. I know a train-spotter when I see one. I strolled over to him and said hello.
He said hello.
This is normally as far as you get in a conversation with a train-spotter, but I persevered.
‘Did you get the number of the train I just got off?’ I said, jovially.
‘The one I just got off?’
‘I didn’t see any train stop here,’ he said. ‘Trains don’t stop here any more. This station was closed two years ago.’
‘Look,’ I said, ‘I just got off a train which stopped here. Do you think I am making it up?’
‘I have been here for four hours,’ he said, ‘taking engine numbers, and I think I would know if a train had stopped here. I like this station for the very reason that nothing ever stops here.’
I felt that reality was starting to float away from me, and that if I didn’t keep very close to this train-spotter, I would be told in a moment that the station had been closed ever since a horrific accident to a young train-spotter two years ago . . .
That is as far as Miles Kington’s story goes. It was found in this state in his computer. Nothing has been seen or heard of him since then. Unless he returns before the next issue, we shall replace him with a rather more reliable writer. - Ed.